How to Clean Nopal Cactus Pads without Becoming a Pin Cushion

It just took a few times of getting my hands full of cactus spines to decide I was never going to clean fresh nopal pads again. The spines were almost too tiny to see, even with my reading glasses. I needed those same glasses and a bright light to extract each minute spine with tweezers. The next thing I touched let me know I had missed one. Or several. From then on, I only ate store-bought nopales, because somebody else had already de-spined them for me.  A visit to my friend Linda’s garden and a taste of freshly picked nopales made me realize how much flavor I had been missing. It took Linda to point this out to me, as she removed each aureole of spines.

If you have your own nopal plant (also known as prickly pear cactus and opuntia) select young, small pads that do not yet have mature, large spines. These young pads are brighter green and usually small, though they can be large.

Anything is better when freshly picked, but something else is going on here. Nopales picked in the afternoon lack the pronounced fresh citrus, slightly acid flavor that an early morning picking can give. The difference is so great, that I was ready to brave the spines again and learn how to de-spine them under Linda’s direction so I could harvest my own in the morning. My fine opuntia specimen would no longer to be just an ornamental in my garden.

It could not have been easier, with a little attention to detail and a sharp knife. After first breaking off a pad, Linda used the knife tip to cut out the tiny spines bunched together in aureoles by shaving across them. Each aureole was slightly raised, making it easier to slice them off. Then she took off a thin slice of the edge of the paddle, where there are more aureoles. She was careful not to touch the remaining spiny aureoles as she repositioned the nopal in her hand. See the light spot at the base of each soft, green spine? That spot is an aggregation of spines so tiny, they are barely visible. That’s what was cut out.

If you are ready to rush off in the morning, after a quick cup of coffee, this trimming may seem slow going, cutting off each little aureole one at a time. It could be tedious, but Linda says she sees it as meditation, patiently focusing on the task at hand.

The morning bird calls and quiet garden setting added their own meditative qualities to the task.

When the nopal pad was trimmed of spines, Linda cut it into strips and handed me a piece to eat fresh. No salt, no lime juice. Just fresh nopal. The skin provided a soft crunch, followed by juicy, tender, slightly acid … cactus. I don’t know how else to describe it, except to say it was refreshing, lemony and like nothing else in the vegetable world. A good way to start the day.


Many instructions for cleaning nopales recommend wearing gloves, but I don’t think this is a good idea. The gloves will get full of tiny stickers, which can work through the glove or stick in your fingers when you take them off or pick them up again. I learned this the hard way.

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Licuado de Nopal– Cactus in a Glass

Licuado de nopal, a cactus smoothie, has recently become my new favorite breakfast drink. I had it few years ago at nearby El Tigre Golf Club’s Sunday Brunch, and then promptly forgot all about it until I read about this green drink last week on Muy Bueno Cookbook. Their (always) gorgeous photos helped inspire me to make it, and it turned out awesome.

Muy Bueno Cookbook uses water in their recipe, though Yvette, the main MBC hermana, writes me that she is now using fruit in her daily drink. The first time I made it, I used cut-up watermelon, including the seeds, instead of water. The taste was delicious, but the color was murky green, so you will not see a photo of that version. Today I made it with freshly squeezed orange juice. Not only was it a beautiful, green color, it tasted refreshing.  Licuado de nopal  has become a part of  my morning routine. After drinking a glass this morning, I took a 30-minute power walk, something I used to do until a month ago when the morning chill and dark made me lazy. Now Chucha and I are walking again, right after my green refresher.

Licuado de Nopal serves 2

  • 2 medium-sized nopal pads, chopped
  • 1/2 cucumber, peeled and chopped
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice or 1 cup cut-up watermelon or other fresh fruit
  • 2 mint leaves, optional, plus more for garnish
  1. Add all ingredients to blender and zizz until smooth.
  2. Pour over ice (optional) and add mint leaf for garnish.


Nopales are the young, tender “paddle” leaves of Opuntia cactus, the common prickly pear cactus of Mexico and the American Southwest. They are eaten as a vegetable all over Mexico and are found in Mexican grocery stores in the US, as I learned last year when I visited Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Nopales are quite prickly to handle if the spines have not been removed, but if you buy them in a grocery store, they are already de-spined. We have a thriving prickly pear cactus in our yard (photo above, with an agave in the foreground), but I don’t harvest its pads. Every time I tried, I became a human pin cushion, my fingers stuck with impossible-to-see, minute spines. Mexicans must be born with the knowledge of how to de-spine prickly pear pads, but I lack this skill. I’m now content to buy them from the supermarket and leaving the handsome specimen in my yard untouched.

A bit of etymology and history: Nopal is from the Nahuatl word, nopalli, meaning pads.  An Aztec legend tells of finding a new homeland by looking for an eagle perched on a cactus, eating a snake. On this spot, Tenochtitlan (meaning place of nopal cactus), was settled, taking its name from nochtli, another Nahuatl word for nopal. Tenochtitlan is present day Mexico City, and this image of the eagle on the cactus is depicted on the Mexican flag.

If you live in a small Mexican town, like I do, you will find fresh nopal, de-spined and either whole or pre-cut, at your local carnicería, the meat market. I have no explanation for why they are sold at carnicerías and not in the produce section at the little, corner grocery stores. In large supermarkets, they will be in the produce section, where you will also find sugar, another puzzlement for me.

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Salad of grilled nopal with carrot, jícama and beet wins recipe contest

I entered a recipe contest hosted by Muy Bueno Cookbook, and I won! The winning recipe is for Salad of Grilled Nopal with Carrot, Jícama and Beet which was featured on Cooking in Mexico last month. Check out their site — they did a much better job with the photography than I did when I first wrote up this recipe.

I never win anything, so this is a big deal for me. The prize is a beautiful Muy Bueno 2011 calendar, with each month featuring one of their Latino inspired recipes and a gorgeous photo.

Muy Bueno Cookbook is selling these calendars, with part of the proceeds benefiting the Denver Foundation, a non-profit group that will use the funds for neighborhood improvements. The photo below shows this calendar; click it to order your own. And make this salad! It’s so colorful and so good for you.

Salsa de Nopal — the cactus in my kitchen

Salsa de Nopal is one more reason why I love living in Mexico. I know it sounds crazy, with all the awful news about the violence in Mexico, to say that I love living here, but I do. Our part of Mexico remains safe, thank goodness, and I keep discovering new salsa recipes that add spice and color to our tropical life.

This recipe comes from Marie of Cooking for Community. Marie is the head chef for Bosque Village, a rustic retreat in rural Mexico near Patzcuaro in the state of Michoacan. She included this recipe in an article she wrote for Another Day in Paradise, an article that was a eye opener for me, as I did not know that the infamous sap of nopal cactus pads, known in Spanish as baba, is used as an ingredient in traditional paints and roof sealants.

Now don’t let that factoid put you off from trying nopales. They really are good for you. Nopales, the tender pad segments of prickly pear cactus, come loaded with amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and studies show that if eaten regularly, they lower LDL cholesterol levels and reduce blood glucose. So listen to your madre y come tus verduras.

Salsa de Nopal

  • 2-3 nopal pads, small dice
  • 1 tomato, small dice
  • 1/2 red onion, small dice
  • 1/2 to 2 jalapeños, seeded and minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 lime, zest and juice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • large pinch of salt
  • 1 handful cilantro, chopped
  • kernels from 1 tender ear of corn, quickly blanched, optional
  • 1/2 cup of cooked black beans, optional
  • 1 avocado, cubed, optional
  1. Blend diced nopal, tomato, red onion, jalapeño, garlic, olive oil and salt in a small bowl.
  2. Add optional corn and beans, if using.
  3. Let salsa rest for 1-2 hours for flavors to blend.
  4. Add cilantro and optional avocado, if using.
  5. Adjust salt and serve with tostadas or tortilla chips.

Russ remembered we had left-over beans from the other day when I made Enfrijoladas. He suggested tostadas with beans, grated cheese and Salsa de Nopal for lunch and was that ever a great combination. He also told me that although he isn’t crazy about nopales, he would eat this salsa anytime, commenting on how its acidity was balanced by the other ingredients. I think he was scraping the bowl empty as he said this.

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    Salad of grilled nopal with carrot, jícama and beet

    Salad of Grilled Nopal with Carrot, Jícama and Beet owes its existence to two inspirations. The first was a conversation with my friend Maria who told me about a salad of grated jícama and beet dressed with freshly squeezed lime juice she makes for her boys. When she told me about it, I pictured the garnet color of beets set against the clean white of jícama, forming a palette of edible art. I accented the colors with the addition of carrots to make it even more brilliant. The second inspiration was a photo of a nopal cactus pad serving as the “plate” for a banana dish featured on the cover of the 2011 calendar by Muy Bueno Cookbook. I wanted to make this salad and I wanted to eat it off of a nopal, one of my favorite Mexican veggies.

    Nopales are the young pads of prickly pear cactus and dished up in many Mexican restaurants as a salad or appetizer. I like to seek out new and unusual foods — part of the joy of being a foodie in Mexico —  and learned to love nopales many years ago.  Most of my friends make a face when I mention nopal and say something like, “Oh, it’s so slimy!” Well, yes it is if it is overcooked. The secret is to cook nopal only until it starts to get tender, but still has its crunch and most of its green color. If it has turned gray and has slimy threads oozing out, sorry, but you cooked it too long. And I have to say that en mi opinión, most Mexican cooks overcook nopales. You will have to cook it for yourself to see how fresh and crisp it can be.

    See a past article from Cooking in Mexico on preparing jícama if you are not familiar with it.

    Update: this recipe for Salad of Grilled Nopal with Carrot, Jícama and Beet has been selected as the winning entry by Muy Bueno Cookbook for their calendar give-away contest. (Dec. 28, 2010)

    Salad of Grilled Nopal with Carrot, Jícama and Beet serves 4

    • 4  small, tender nopal cactus pads
    • olive oil
    • 1 large raw carrot, peeled and grated
    • 1 large jícama, peeled and grated
    • 1 large raw beet, peeled and grated
    • freshly squeezed lime juice
    • coarse sea salt
    1. Pre-heat your grill.
    2. Brush nopales with olive oil and grill no longer than 1 minute per side. (Thicker, more mature nopales may need more time.)
    3. Arrange grated vegetables on the nopales.
    4. Serve with a cruet of olive oil, wedges of lime and sea salt.


    Nopal is from the Nahuatl word for pads, nopalli. A branch of the Uto-Aztecan language, Nahuatl is still spoken in Mexico today.

    Many families have a few nopal plants in their yard to supply the table, and they are also common in supermarkets, large and small. Look for young, small pads that are bright green. Don’t worry about any cactus spines — they are removed at the grocery store.

    Nopales are rich in fiber, vitamins A, C and K, as well as high in minerals. When eaten in a mixed meal, it is thought that nopales reduce the glycemic effect.

    Avoid nopales that are in cans or jars. They will be gray and limp and will make a poor introduction to this great vegetable.

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